|Second place in a competition for true stories about war.
A Soldier’s War.
The True Story of Some of My Stepfather’s War Experiences
Bill never talked about it, few who have experienced the horrors of war ever do. As children we would hear him cry out in the night and all four of us would cower under the covers as he screamed, “Fix bayonets! Charge!” The prefab resounded with his cries as mum tried to quieten him. It was not until mum died, forty years later, that I and a bottle of whisky persuaded him to talk.
I can see him now, on the settee, a full whisky glass in his hand, a shadow of that once proud infantry man, reliving the horrors of his youth. “We were in slit trenches, the sand filling our eyes and the Panzers roaring towards us. We were out of ammunition. We were done for. Then, Captain Bell, the bravest man I ever knew, rose up out of the trench and firing his revolver, charged the tanks. In seconds, he was cut down.” Bill took a sip of whisky and sat back and shook his head. “What a waste! Had kids you know. The tanks continued roaring towards us. One went right over the top of our trench crushing the sides in. There was nothing we could do. Then one tank fired straight at Sergeant Longman blowing bits of him everywhere, smothering us in blood and flesh. It was time to surrender and, as the next in charge, it was up to me to make the decision. Slowly, I raised my arms and what was left of the squad followed suit. The tanks still came on, the roar of the engines was deafening and the smell of oil and exhaust choked us. Snowy , a youngster who had just joined us, lay in the bottom of the trench screaming, for his mother. To our surprise, the Panzers went round us and then we saw why. Out of the smoke and dust came the Italian infantry, screaming, with fixed bayonets. We were going to die. So that there were no mistakes, we raised our arms higher and held them there until they ached”
Bill took a slug of whisky making him choke and splutter. I could see the sweat running down his face as he relived the horror. For a moment I was tempted to stop but this interview was for posterity and future generations, who thankfully will not have to go through the horrors of war. .
He put his glass down and continued. “ The I’ties levelled their weapons at us and I thought. ‘This is it!’ One of them, who seemed to be in charge, kept shouting above the tumult ‘ Ups see! ups see’, and waved his rifle up and down.
Then I realized he wanted us to leave the comparative safety of our trench and I signalled to the lads to clamber out. Even after all these years I can still feel the bayonet point digging in my back, expecting at any moment to have it thrust into me. The noise was still deafening, although the tanks had torn through our lines and moved on towards Tobruk. I looked round at what remained of our squad. They looked defeated as they shuffled along with their heads bowed, exhausted after days of fighting. Gradually, more of our regiment joined us and soon we were part of a great, winding column, heading we knew not where, but at least we counted ourselves lucky; we had been captured by the Italians, not the Germans”.
Bill paused, and for a few seconds looked out of the window at a small group of children playing hop-scotch in the roadway. I filled his glass from the, now half- empty, bottle and asked, “What happened then?”
He looked at me through glazed eyes and I could see he was again back in the past on the road to a prison camp. “The Italians were not bad. The guards were very laid back and although the food was never enough, at least we were fed and the Italian population at large did not seem to hold a grudge. To be honest I would not have minded staying there but I spoilt it; I tried to escape. Bert and I slipped through the wiring one night, but we were soon recaptured. We stood out like black birds in a field of canaries; not speaking the lingo and all that. I don’t know if it was the attempted escape that did it but soon after we found ourselves in a cattle truck, heading for the Ruhr. We heard the Germans needed labour for their industries. The journey was horrific, little food and water. When we wanted to urinate we pushed through the crowd and did it in a corner. During that two day journey we were not let out. You can imagine the smell. We were treated like animals. After we had settled in our new camp we were lined up and the commandant addressed us in perfect English. “You are here to work in the mines. If you don’t work, you don’t eat!”
I remember thinking. ‘That’s not right! It’s against the Geneva Convention.’ As the news spread from hut to hut that it was illegal to make us go down the mines, the rebellion grew. Next morning, on parade, the German Commandant shouted “Forward march!” Nobody moved! The guards came in our lines and started laying into us with their rifle butts but still the parade stood firm. The Commandant roared out an order in German. I and the other NCOS were dragged to the front and shoved against a wall. We were going to be shot. Without a word, the column started to march towards the mine.”
Bill’s eyes glazed over and tears ran down his cheeks as the memories flooded back. It was time to stop. There was always another time, I thought, but unfortunately there wasn’t; he died three months later, trying to escape from an OAP home.
~ by Jim Reeve.